One in three smokers lighting up more during COVID-19 lockdown: new survey

Heart Foundation

One third of Australian smokers have been lighting up more during the COVID-19 lockdown, according to new data released by the Heart Foundation ahead of World No Tobacco Day (31 May) – but the good news is that around the same proportion are smoking less.

In the survey of 262 cigarette or e-cigarette smokers earlier this month, 31 per cent said they had been smoking more often than normal during the pandemic.

Of these respondents, almost half cited isolation (45%) and boredom (44%) as the reason for the increase. Other reasons included having more free time (39%); being more stressed than usual (33%); emotional triggers (32%); and family members being around more/less often (12%).

The survey also found that around one third (29%) of smokers had reduced their consumption of tobacco or e-cigarette products during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For these smokers, the top reason for their changed behaviour was “the lockdown encouraged me to quit smoking” (31%). Other responses included:

  • Limited access to tobacco or e-cigarette products (28%);
  • Lockdown encouraged healthy lifestyle changes (27%);
  • A change in disposable income (25%);
  • Being in isolation (23%); and
  • Not having access to an outdoor area to smoke (23%).

Smokers in metropolitan areas were more inclined to have cut back during the pandemic compared with those in regional parts of Australia (32% versus 19%).

Of those smoking less, around 13 per cent thought that the respiratory aspect of COVID-19 made them feel more vulnerable to catching the virus.

“Given everything we are learning about COVID-19 and smoking, there has never been a better time to quit,” Heart Foundation Director of Health Strategy, Julie Anne Mitchell, said.

“Early evidence suggests people who smoke are at increased risk of coronavirus infection. Smokers are at a higher risk of getting lung and chest infections in general. Also, the hand-to-mouth action of smoking means they touch their face more often, increasing their chance of exposure to the virus.

“There is also some evidence that smokers may be more severely affected by COVID-19 illness. This could be because smokers’ lungs simply don’t work as well. Their immune system may also be affected, which means it is harder to fight the infection.”
Ms Mitchell said it was encouraging that some smokers are using the COVID-19 lockdown as a trigger for better lifestyle choices.

“The pandemic has made Australians stop and think more seriously about our health – both in terms of the immediate risk from the virus, and what we can do longer term to protect ourselves from chronic conditions like heart disease,” she said.

“Our survey showed that those smoking less during the lockdown are also more likely to make other healthy lifestyle changes, such as preparing healthier food for themselves and their families.”

If you are still smoking, the best thing you can do for your heart health is quit. One year after quitting smoking, the risk of a heart attack or stroke is reduced by half, and in five to 15 years, the risk of stroke and coronary heart disease returns to that of people who have never smoked.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Heart Foundation also recommends:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently, particularly before and after smoking;
  • Cough into your elbow, try to avoid touching your face, and maintain a physical distance from others;
  • Do not share cigarettes or roll a cigarette for someone else;
  • Get your flu shot. People who have smoked are at increased risk of becoming infected with the influenza virus.

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